It’s all about the audience in Shakespeare in the Squares’ outdoor touring production of Romeo and Juliet. From the opening 1950s Italian musical medley (the cast plays two saxophones, two clarinets, a guitar, and a ukelele among them) to the play’s most intimate moments, director Tatty Hennessy demands the audience’s focus by having her actors constantly speaking directly to the nearest available spectator.
There’s a fresh urgency to a balcony scene in which Romeo (Adam Strawford) and Juliet (Indigo Griffiths) can’t stop checking in with the audience as if to make sure this blossoming relationship is on the right track. And since this particular performance took place in Connaught Square, surrounded by fairly busy, noisy streets, the interactive immediacy reduced the risk of distraction. Still, Hennessy and her cast work harder to cultivate the audience-company relationship than those relationships within the play. That devotion to the onlookers often dilutes the onstage action.
Hennessy also kicks off her production at breakneck speed, zooming through the play’s first half with the tail end of each scene overlapping with the start of the next one. And while this efficiency successfully supplies the sense that the characters are making split-second decisions, leaving themselves little time to consider the ramifications of their actions, it also sometimes propels the actors into textual auto-pilot with individual words and phrases playing second fiddle to the general mood of each speech.
Even if there’s rarely a sense that these characters are encountering their thoughts for the first time, the spirited cast delight in sharing these lamentations, jokes, and prayers with the audience, featuring, at this performance, a full front row of children under ten, for whom these words would have presumably been new.
Although much of Hennessy’s directorial interventions don’t quite land (like the musically salient but otherwise inert 1950s setting), I appreciated the conflation of Lord and Lady Montague into a single matriarchal figure, played by a commanding Liz Marsh. Marsh nimbly doubles as the Nurse whose bawdy asides fit right into the audience-centric environment.
A few characters get lost along the way though. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech comes across as merely drunken rambling. The hot-blooded Capulet family drama in the second half of the play seems somewhat undercooked, despite a compellingly lively Lady Capulet (Naomi Bullock), who leads a festive rendition of “Mambo Italiano.”
While Strawford and Griffiths read as endearingly young and innocent, they could lean with more nuance into the star-crossed lovers’ oft-underplayed impetuousness and petulance. Since they usually just seem like sweet kids, the pair fares best in scenes opposite more fleshed-out figures like Hannah Sinclair Robinson’s devoted Benvolio, desperate to get Romeo to heed her, and Julia Righton’s wry Sister Laurence, making more out of her nature-orientated opening speech than I’ve heard from many a male Friar Laurence past. In his brief appearances as a serious Tybalt and the Apothecary, Roger Suubi also makes a strong impression.
But it’s not to Friar Laurence that Romeo and Juliet look to for help. When they aim their entreaties at the powerless audience, tragedy seems more inevitable than ever.
Romeo and Juliet toured throughout London until July 13. For more information and tickets, see www.shakespeareinthesquares.co.uk.
Photo: James Millar Photography